January 20, 2017

Cold Iron

        One of my current works-in-very-little-progress involves conflict between humans and the faery, so I’ve been looking at what one can do to repel the Fair Folk.  One of the most common and basic substances that faeries hate is iron, or “cold iron.”  In a fantasy set in the modern world, this leads to all kinds of difficulties.  Iron, usually in the form of steel, is everywhere in the modern world.  Houses are riddled with beams, nails, edges, appliances, tools, silverware, pots and pans…  How would a faery even be able to enter a human building without excruciating discomfort or debilitating loss of magic?  My story centers around a changeling, but how do you replace a human with a faery and expect it to pass in a world of steel?  So modern fantasy has to come up with some refinement on what exactly it is that makes a substance count as efficacious iron.
        I’ve seen some stories in which “iron” counts but “steel” doesn’t, but this really doesn’t hold up.  Steel is almost entirely iron and it makes no sense that mixing as little as 1% of carbon or other elements would render the iron harmless - especially as worked iron has had these “impurities” for the past 4,000 years.  So what about the idea that hand-worked wrought iron is obnoxious to the Fair Folk, but not factory mass-produced metals?  Or what about adopting the phrase “cold iron” as the relevant substance?  That, of course, calls for a definition of what makes a particular iron “cold.”
        One possible definition is that “cold iron” is simply a poetical epithet for any kind of iron, but that gets us nowhere.  An 1811 dictionary defined cold iron as “a sword, or any other [presumably iron or steel] weapon for cutting or stabbing.”  In other words, it’s edged metal that’s at issue.  This would be a useable distinction in a story, but doesn’t explain centuries of tradition, such as the use of horseshoes to repel evil spirits or the iron fence around a cemetery to contain ghosts.  Some modern authors have chosen to define cold iron as meteoric iron, which certainly has had wonderful properties attributed to it in cultures around the world, but again fails to account for the apparent efficacy of more ordinary old-fashioned iron objects.  There is such a thing as “cold forging,” in which the metal is worked at room temperature, but this is rare for iron or steel, which are usually heated above the recrystallization temperature to be worked.
        It seems logical to go to the root of the problem: What exactly is it about iron that pains supernatural creatures?  At root it seems to be that iron tools are of the human world, representing humans’ dominion over nature.  But if that’s the problem, surely the faery would hate plastic and other synthetics even more, thus making any interaction of faeries in the human world even more difficult.  And if the faery can never go anywhere near anything of human manufacture, I don’t have much of a story, do I?
          So, what’s a fantasy author to do with all this?  I still haven’t figured it out.  As of now I’ve given one character iron hardware on her front door and a wrought iron coat rack in the front hall, but of course I could change that if I changed the rules of my universe.  Another character wants to test for the presence of a faery, and was planning to do so with an iron object.  Having reached this point I need to be very clear about exactly what sort of iron would bother the faery, and what wouldn’t.  What do you think?

[Pictures: Illustration by Helen Stratton from Songs for Little People by Gale, 1896 (Image from British Library);
Di Spada e Pugnale, wood block print from Opera nova… de l’arte de l’Armi by Achille Marozzo, 1536 (Image from MDZ Digitale Bibliothek);
Two smiths making a horseshoe, wood block print by Jost Amman from Das Ständebuch, 1568 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

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